21st-Century Thinking for a 21st-Century World

nokiaforblogBy David Greco, managing partner, Social Sector Partners, and Sylia Obagi, executive director, Roy and Patricia Disney Family Foundation

This post is one in a series written by leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum taking place on November 9 & 10 in New Orleans. We invite you to join us.

Are you still living in 2005?

In 2005, the number one selling phone in the world was the Nokia 1100. It had a monochrome display with support for four lines of text and a resolution of 96 x 65 pixels. It had no browser, no camera, no mobile data; basically, it was just a phone for calling and texting. It would be two more years before the very first iPhone was released. There was no Twitter and Facebook was still limited to just college campuses. Was that really only 10 years ago?  Seems like a very different world indeed.

In the 21st century, not only have there have been massive changes in the tech world, one can argue there have been many more in the social sector. We are in the midst of the industrial revolution of the nonprofit sector. There are new forces at play transforming the sector and the way in which nonprofits must operate within it to survive. If nonprofits don’t act now, they risk being as outdated and irrelevant as the Nokia 1100. In the past 10 years, we have seen

  • a wholesale shift in how government is funding and approaching social issues
  • a new wave of philanthropists who don’t think about making donations to charity but rather look for investments in social innovation
  • a blending of the nonprofit and for-profit capital markets
  • the rise of hybrid social enterprises, B Corps, and triple bottom line business
  • the advent of big data and a push for social outcomes measurement
  • the flood of big money that is threatening to drown out the voices of those who lack the resources to compete

In 2005, there were no such things as B Corps, there was no ‘impact investing’ as a recognized approach to funding, there was no ‘Social Capital Markets’, and social impact bonds were still five years away. And there was no “Citizens United” that opened the flood gates of “big money” into political campaigns. Ten years ago, the social sector was a vastly different place.

Yet for too many organizations and their boards, it is still 2005, with business strategies resembling the old Nokia phones — useful in their time but now passed over by more powerful and innovative thinking.

When we hear nonprofit leaders touting that they spend .93 cents out of every dollar on programs, we have to ask, “How are they staying competitive in today’s rapidly changing world?” In our new normal, nonprofits must have even greater professional talent, adopt cutting-edge technology, and be even more flexible, responsive, and innovative than ever before. And you don’t get there by starving your organization.

Board leaders need to understand what it really costs to deliver great outcomes over the long term. In today’s world, success and sustainability means having a business model that generates regular, reliable revenue that covers the full-cost of doing business as well as the necessary investment capital and reserves.

To develop a sustainable nonprofit that is most effective, boards need to answer a number of critical questions:

  • What is the fully loaded cost of doing business?
  • How much risk can the organization take?
  • What are the organization’s capital and balance sheet needs including working capital, investment capital, and reserves?
  • How can we communicate our financial story to donors, grantmakers, and other stakeholders?

Forget fundraising ratios and overhead rates. We find the debate over ‘overhead’ a bit like arguing the virtues of Beta vs VHS in the age of online streaming videos. It is not about good or bad, it just about adapting to today’s rapidly changing world. Focusing on overhead means you are focusing on an old paradigm of scarcity and bare bones operations. Whereas today’s world requires a focus on capital, resources, innovation, and quality to ensure an organization stays competitive in today’s outcomes-based world.

Organizations must move away from the scarcity paradigm and create a leadership team and board structure that focuses on outcomes, what it costs to achieve those outcomes, and how they will develop a funding model to secure the necessary resources. By focusing on the generative questions of building a sustainable organization, board members can successfully lead their organizations into the rapidly changing 21st century.


Is Your Nonprofit Board Focused on the Right Things?

excepboards-photogBy Tom Adams, director, Succession and Sustainability Planning, Raffa PC

This post is one in a series written by leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum taking place on November 9 & 10 in New Orleans. We invite you to join us.

Board leaders have many choices on how to focus the time and talent of the board and its work, with certain duties often well engrained in the board’s culture and habits. Most boards pay attention to finances, periodically ask about the strategic plan and goals, and, in some cases, complete an annual performance review of the CEO. And if fundraising is a major role, this often gets a lot of attention.

Habits — behaviors we do routinely — cut both ways. Often they are helpful and contribute to our good. Other times, they distract us from what is important or misdirect time and resources. For board leaders, reinforcing habits that overlook critical issues or responsibilities or major changes in what is required of the board is dangerous. Organizations that fail to adapt to needed changes in strategy or business model, or fail to prepare for leadership change due to an aging senior team, run the risk of unexpectedly ending up managing a crisis or underperforming for months or years.

The 2008-2009 recession painfully increased awareness about financial sustainability. Since then, leading organizations are combining attention to a broader look at organizational sustainability and vitality with attention to leadership continuity and succession planning. High-performing organizations want to hold that ground and achieve even more mission results. Organizations on the path to increased results want to make sure their trip is not interrupted by unexpected changes in leadership, resources, or the environment.

The great news for boards is that with some preparation and a relatively short discussion — an hour or so in a board meeting — leaders can quickly look at their organizational big picture and decide where to focus and go deeper based on the current and future needs of their organizations. This discussion asks the board to do a mini-assessment in two dimensions:

  • Organizational sustainability around four areas of focus: leadership, strategy and business model, resources, and culture
  • Leadership continuity and succession, readiness for planned and unplanned transitions of key executive and board leaders

Here are examples of this process at work:

Organization A is a leader in its field. Over a period of ten years, it has transformed from a struggling single-focused advocacy organization to a go-to provider of a comprehensive set of services. Successfully completing a capital campaign, the CEO is retiring. A sustainability and succession review quickly points to attention to the organization’s culture and decision making as the key to retaining talent and transitioning to the next executive.

Organization B has been talking for several years about the impact of the Affordable Care Act on their services. By looking at sustainability and succession together, this organization is able to develop a concrete action plan that focuses the board and executive team on the choices and culture changes needed to adapt and thrive.

Organization C has been struggling for the past five years. The reserves are near depleted and most of the board members have resigned or are disengaged. Staff size has shrunk by 50 percent. Before deciding to give up and close down, two board leaders and the CEO decide to step back and look more deeply at sustainability. Together these three leaders create a turnaround plan that includes the departure of the CEO departing, the hiring of an interim CEO with turnaround expertise, and the organization letting go of two services and focusing on its two better known and consistently funded services.

Board leaders have choices about focus. Without a periodic review of why the board is focused on what it is, the board can lose its way or miss a big issue that can derail or possibly destroy the organization. A relatively short conversation about organizational sustainability and leadership continuity can prevent the derail and better focus the resources of the board and organization. The initial conversation provides the focus for the board and executive team to go deeper on the work that matters.

BoardSource will feature a three-hour Professional Development Institute (PDI) workshop at BLF that offers hands-on work with a sustainability and succession mini-assessment tool and prepares leaders to have these important conversations with their boards. I encourage you to join us.

Please note: Conference registrants must preregister for this workshop.




Are Nonprofit Boards Really Necessary?

essential-excepboardsBy Anne Wallestad, president & CEO, BoardSource

This past summer, I had an opportunity to attend a leadership intensive for nonprofit CEOs at Stanford University. For 10 days, 50 of my peers from organizations across the country and around the globe and I learned skills and strategies to help propel our organizations forward.

I expected it to be a truly amazing educational experience, and it didn’t disappoint. I — and BoardSource — will be benefiting from the time spent with some of the brightest minds in strategy, communications, and management for years to come. What I didn’t expect was my classmates’ interest in spending time with me: Early on, many asked if I could meet to talk about how to build a stronger relationship with their boards.

So I organized an informal dinner conversation one night and — much to my surprise — almost the entire group came. We pushed together tables, and they told of the board challenges they are facing around such issues as recruitment, fundraising, engagement, founder transitions, and boundaries. We talked for more than two hours. They shared their concerns and hopes, and, as a group, we offered each other advice and counsel. And then, toward the end of the conversation, someone asked this question:

“Don’t you think it’s time for a different model?”

I actually get asked this question all the time in my role at BoardSource, and have come to realize that — for at least some CEOs — it’s another way of saying, “Can’t we just get rid of boards? It would be so much easier for me to do my job without one.”

And it’s a somewhat understandable sentiment. The board — as a construct — is not without its challenges. It’s a body that, by design, is meant to bring together influential people with diverse opinions and perspectives. We ask them to bring their expertise and networks, but put aside their personal loyalties and position. And we ask them to tackle big questions of organizational strategy and sustainability and make decisions — as a collective, not as individuals.

There are a lot of dynamics and variables that can go wrong or get out of whack in that scenario. From the CEO’s perspective, that’s a challenging thing to manage — and an even more challenging thing to be managed by. Because, of course, for the CEO, the collective board — with all of those group dynamics and challenges — is also his or her boss.

A Gallup poll of more than 1 million workers found that the No. 1 reason people quit their jobs is because they had a bad relationship with their boss or immediate supervisor. So it should be no surprise that when asked by BoardSource to grade their boards’ support of them in their role as leader, almost a third of nonprofit CEOs give their boards a “C.” And that those chief executives who are unhappy with their boards are more than twice as likely to be making plans to leave their position.

And yet — despite these challenges — I am a staunch believer in the absolutely necessity of boards.

I believe that the end of boards would be the end of the nonprofit sector.

I know that sounds apocalyptic, but I really believe that it’s true. Without boards, the social sector would falter in ways that would irrevocably harm us, and would ultimately lead to our demise — maybe not instantly, but eventually.

Here’s why:

  • First, organizations would struggle to earn and keep the public’s trust. Another recently released Gallup study found that charities are among the most trusted institutions in our society, ranking higher than government, corporations, newspapers, banks, and even schools. But that trust is fragile, and, I believe, relies heavily on the idea that there is a group of people with shared accountability watching over the organization’s practices and working to prevent bad things from happening.
  • Second, organizations need strong leadership to succeed. Every organization needs a strong and effective leader. But the truth of the matter is, not every organization has one, and, when that’s the reality, it’s the board’s role to step in and either provide support or make a change. Without a board, ineffective leaders would remain in place indefinitely, leading to a growing number of organizations being poorly led and a slow decrease in the reputation, stature and, most importantly, the impact of the nonprofit sector.
  • And finally, surviving a CEO transition would be the exception, rather than the rule. Without a board, there would be no solid mechanism for finding an organization’s next leader, which would create a whole host of dysfunctions — employees hiring their bosses, CEOs appointing “heirs” to their leadership, or EDs simply walking off to leave the organization to fend for itself. Not to mention the fact that — without the stability of the board’s leadership and reputational capital — new leaders would face a tremendous uphill battle establishing credibility and securing the funding that the organization would need to succeed. And many organizations simply wouldn’t.

Some might say…so what? Isn’t it okay if organizations falter or fail? Won’t there be others that come up right behind them? Won’t it encourage organizations to build resiliency and strength in creative and innovative ways? And there’s some truth in all of that, without a doubt. We do suffer as a sector from too many organizations that aren’t built for resiliency and impact, and — as many have suggested — the sector might benefit from some thoughtful and strategic restructuring and consolidation.

But that leads me to perhaps the most important point: Failure in the nonprofit sector is a high-stakes venture. When a nonprofit organization goes under, it doesn’t just affect the people who lose their jobs. It leaves a void in services and a hole in its community. It means that the people who relied on that organization are even more vulnerable.

Can our communities survive one or two failures? Probably. But if we’re talking about large-scale destabilization of the nonprofit sector, what we’d really be talking about is large-scale destabilization of communities across the country. Hundreds of thousands of people who rely on nonprofit organizations for support and basic services would be without.

The nonprofit sector is too critical to our society and our communities to have a cavalier attitude about its sustainability and survival. And it’s too critical to abandon the very good idea requirement that each organization have a group of people who are bound and committed to the organization’s success in such a real way that they are willing to put their own financial, reputational, and social capital on the line.

That’s why we need boards. And that’s why we should be celebrating their commitment, rather than questioning their existence.

This post first appeared on the Huffington Post blog.



Fuel the Operations of Your Nonprofit with a Dashboard

excep-boards-screensBy Peter Manzetti, director, Governance, Risk and Compliance Services, Friedman LLP; Amish Mehta, partner and not-for-profit practice leader, Friedman LLP

This post is one in a series written by leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum taking place in New Orleans on November 9 & 10. We invite you to join us.

At first glance, driving a car and overseeing the operations of a nonprofit organization might not seem to have much in common. Look a little closer, though, and similarities emerge. As a driver, your objective is to get from Point A to Point B without getting lost, stuck in traffic, involved in an accident, or ticketed. As a member of a nonprofit board or senior management team, your goal is to get your organization from Point A — where it is today — to Point B — where it wants or needs to be. Along the way, you want to comply with all pertinent laws and regulations, avoid any actions that damage the organization’s credibility and viability, and keep your “vehicle” in good working order, so it performs well throughout the journey.

One important tool all drivers rely on to monitor a car’s performance is the dashboard. There, right in front of the steering wheel, are displays that tell you the car’s speed, how much fuel is in the tank, etc. If you spot a police car, you glance down at the speedometer, discover that you’re going 85 in a 65-mph zone, and slow down. If the fuel gauge nears “E,” you stop at the next gas station. Without the information provided by the dashboard, you may still get from Point A to Point B, but there will likely be a number of bumps along the way.

As a leader of a nonprofit, a tool comparable to a car’s dashboard would prove invaluable as you guide your organization toward the fulfillment of its mission. Moreover, nonprofits are often required to demonstrate an acceptable return on donor/grantor funds invested and provide “evidence-based” data to back up their claims of accomplishment with watchdog groups, such as Charity Navigator, GuideStar, and the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance, and with the general public.

If you’re looking for some practical tips on how to focus and align your vision and “drive” success for your organization, come to November 10th’s BLF 2015 session titled Using a Financial Performance Dashboard to Engage and Inform Your Board.  At the session, we will provide you with an overview of one nonprofit board’s journey to integrate the dashboard approach into its oversight responsibilities and facilitate dialogue with the organization’s senior management to discuss the things that really matter.


What Does It Take to Stand Out and Excel in the Nonprofit Sector?

house-blogBy Marshall H. Ginn, CFRE, founder, Capital Development Strategies LLC; Selection Committee Chair, Management Excellence Award, Center for Nonprofit Advancement

This post is one in a series written by leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum, taking place in New Orleans on November 9 & 10. We encourage you to join us.

In September, I attended the Nonprofit Management Institute presented by Stanford Social Innovation Review and the Association of Fundraising Professionals. The theme was “Resilience,” and we were given an opportunity explore this topic from a variety of useful perspectives. One of the presenters, the futurist and author Andrew Zolli, spoke of resilience as an organization’s ability to build “regenerative capacity.” He said those organizations that could sense emerging risks, responded effectively to disruption, and possessed a culture of learning and transformation were most likely to be highly resilient.

Over the past several years, I’ve seen a real evolution within the nonprofit sector, with the characteristics that distinguish a nonprofit as truly “excellent” becoming ever more complex and sophisticated. I have seen this first-hand in the nonprofits I’ve encountered through the Management Excellence Award presented in the Washington, DC region. The selection committee, which I chair, takes notice of resilience during our examination of the nonprofits who apply for this prestigious award. And for many of the finalists and winners, it has been their ability to weather significant disruptions or challenges that has been one of the key qualities setting them apart.

For some finalists, it was riding through the Recession and coming out the other end with solid finances that set them apart. For others, it was surviving serious challenges with changes in executive leadership forcing the board to step up its game to become true leaders. For yet others, it was significant policy shifts that threatened core initiatives central to the organization’s work and called on the entire organization to engage with the community and build coalitions to get the work done. These organizations sensed those emerging risks, responded to the disruptions, and learned from the experiences to become stronger organizations.

Such nonprofits serve as leaders in the sector, providing great models and examples for others to follow. They are unafraid to take appropriate risks and to engage in challenging conversations to advance their cause. They use data and a deep understanding of their abilities to affect real change and encourage others to join them. They are leading movements and transforming entire communities through their efforts and engagement of others in their issues and work.

This quality of self-confidence is just one of the common traits I found when examining more than a dozen nonprofits that have succeeded as either finalists or semifinalists with the Management Excellence Award. (The other two qualities were self-awareness and selflessness.) Over the years, the selection committee has changed up our application questions to capture the special qualities exhibited by these organizations. We had moved beyond simply asking for copies of a strategic plan or a financial policies and procedures manual, for example. Now we inquire about a nonprofit’s commitment to transparency and upholding the public trust. We examine their ability to learn and adapt. We want to know about capacity building, collaboration. and risk management. We want them to show us how they are demonstrating leadership within the sector.

Our asking these new questions provides us with a window into the cutting edge of excellence in nonprofit management. It has created a template that we can use to look at our own organizations and explore where we are in our own evolution. For staff and board leaders, it provides fodder for robust conversations about organizational strengths as well as challenges. For philanthropic leaders, it highlights the power of “changing up the questions” to get at what we really want to know. It shows that there is more to an organization than can be discovered through a due-diligence checklist.

A deeper exploration of this is in the paper “What’s Leadership Go to Do With It?” which can be found on the resources page of the Capital Development Strategies website. This paper was also adapted into an article for BoardSource’s e-newsletter, The Spark!, called “The Evolution of Excellence.” This paper will form the basis of a presentation at the BoardSource Leadership Forum, where I will explore these traits and talk about real-world examples of winning organizations putting these qualities into practice. I will be joined by a board member of one of those winning organizations who will share her perspective on the board’s role in creating a culture where such excellence can thrive. I hope you can join us.



Modeling the Nonprofit Board Behavior We Seek

gears-blogBy Susan Howlett, consultant and author

This post is one in a series written by experts who will be presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum taking place on November 9 & 10 in New Orleans. We invite you to join us.

Do you ever complain about your board members? Maybe they’re not giving as generously as you think they could. Or they’re not talking up your organization or asking their contacts to contribute time, in-kind gifts, money, or sponsorship.

What if they’re not the problem? Perhaps we haven’t been offering them good models to follow. Here are three things we can examine about our own behavior that might change theirs:

Are we treating our board members like major donors?

If our board members aren’t giving according to their capacity, it might be because we haven’t made the effort to cultivate a relationship that acknowledges them individually and deepens their connection to our cause. We can thank them more powerfully, with hand-written notes, personal phone calls, and verbal acknowledgements in person or at events. We can use their time more strategically at board meetings, and connect the dots between their service and the impact it’s having on end-users. Taking the time throughout the year to honor the myriad gifts they offer may lead to larger investments because they feel seen and heard and valued as part of the team. And they’ll see first-hand how to cultivate a relationship with a potential donor.

Are we engaging our board members in our work?

If our board members aren’t being compelling ambassadors, helping people in their circles embrace our cause, it might be because we haven’t helped THEM connect to our work. We can

  • ask board members to write their own testimonials about why they care about the organization. They might struggle to articulate it, but it will be an insightful assignment, and they could see why asking others the same question could be a great engagement tactic.
  • have them gather stories of the organization’s impact on end-users, to be shared at board meetings, in publications, in appeal letters or thank-yous. As they collect and share stories from people who have benefited, they’ll gain a deeper understanding of how we make a difference.
  • invite them to participate in an in-the-trenches experience or behind-the-scenes tour with insider information from someone in your field or an elected official who champions your work.
  • host a salon in someone’s living room where board members and other smart people wrestle with a troubling aspect of your issue
  • offer them opportunities to share advice or expertise, or open a door to an in-kind gift of goods or services

Once board members see how rewarding it is to get closer to the mission, they’ll be more willing to invite others to get involved too.

Are we asking for their support in the most compelling way?

If our board members aren’t asking others for support, it might be because they don’t know what a good request looks or feels like. We often ask them all at once to make their annual pledges at a board meeting, depriving them of the joy and satisfaction of a well-planned personal conversation that centers on their alignment with the mission. Make sure each board member has been the subject of a skillful solicitation so he or she will be eager to offer others that same memorable opportunity.

When board members have been engaged in the mission, cultivated and stewarded artfully, and asked powerfully for their own personal gift, they’ll understand what it feels like to be a donor to our organization. As with all of us, they’ll repeat the behavior they’ve experienced. So see to it that what happens to them is intentional, strategic, personal, and respectful. Model the behavior you want them to exhibit and they’ll emulate it with others.





Building a Collaborative Nonprofit Board Team

sept-blog4By David Styers, BoardSource Senior Governance Consultant; manager of program & business development, Presidio Institute, a Presidio Trust Initiative

This post is one in a series written by board leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum taking place in New Orleans on November 9 & 10. We invite you to join us.

How well would your board stack up against a great basketball team, say my hometown’s NBA-champion Golden State Warriors? And I don’t mean in the racking up of points but in terms of how your members work as a team.

For years, you have heard, “You need to diversify your board,” but once accomplished, what does it take to get a group of individuals with a diversity of perspectives, skills, and experiences to work together to advance your mission when they come from… different planets?! Those corporate folks over there are from Mercury. The ones with ties to the government? They’re from Saturn. And the individuals who work within the nonprofit sector hail from Neptune!

I don’t think I’m alone in noticing a disconnect among diverse board members in how to even talk to and understand each another’s “sector dialect.” For example, the perspective of a nonprofit board member in zero-based budgeting may be completely foreign to one from the private sector, and the corporate board member may embrace innovation and risk a little faster than his or her government partner. The result can be more coblaborating than collaborating, which is what your board needs to do.

Based on what Albert Einstein recognized — “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them” — your diverse board will have to learn to behave differently. Not surprising, it seems to come down to that old adage: teamwork. Collaborative boards, just like the Golden State Warriors, are board teams. They take the time to develop trust, manage power dynamics and conflicts, and foster a culture of innovation.

If there is no trust, board members will not be able to successfully address organizational problems or take advantage of opportunities when they occur. Trust is based on understanding, empathy, and shared commitment. Do your board members understand each another’s experiences, work, training, and pressures? Does your board provide your members with the opportunity to develop that understanding? How do your board members build and maintain empathy for each another and commitment to the work? How do they build the resilience to be able to speak frankly without fear or judgment?

You also need to manage your board’s power dynamics and conflict. How do you acknowledge them and understand the history of the board and organization? How well do you bring a lens of racial/ethnic/gender/class equity and inclusion to the work of the board? How do you approach and enable conflict to occur productively?

Finally, to function well as a collaborative team, a board needs to foster a culture of innovation. How do you build a culture of learning and continuous improvement in your board? How do you make yourselves open to new information, ideas, and ways of developing solutions?

By focusing on leading together, your board will provide better governance and ultimately better advancement of your mission. Maybe there should be a BLF championship for best board team! Again, how well would your board fare?

Passing the Nonprofit Governance Torch to GENNEXT

sept-blog3By Kay Irby, director of organizational development, Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations

This post is one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum, taking place on November 9 & 10 in New Orleans. Please consider joining us for this event.

“Help! Our board is lacking in diversity regarding race, skillset, and most of all, age!”

Ten years ago, the Community Foundation of North Louisiana and the Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations (LANO) was showered with pleas of this kind from nonprofit leaders from throughout the northwest part of our state. Our response? To help change the situation through a Community Leaders program that has, over the past decade, trained hundreds of young professionals in nonprofit board service and placed these young leaders on boards throughout northwest Louisiana.

We began our efforts by asking our nonprofits why they don’t have younger leaders at the board table. The answers ranged from We know we need them, but they don’t have wealth and access to wealth” and “They are at an age and stage in life where they don’t have time” to “We don’t know any who would be interested.”

We then asked young leaders why they don’t serve on local nonprofit boards. Their answers ranged from “I don’t have the confidence to speak out at meetings” and “I don’t feel educated about board roles and responsibilities” to “I want to serve where I can make a difference, not just enable an organization to check off a diversity box.”

It was clear that we had work to do on both sides of the issue, and that’s what the Community Leaders program does. Through collaborative partnerships committed to change and an innovative model for teaching board roles and responsibilities, we have made headway in changing the composition of our aging boards. Northwest Louisiana’s nonprofits now understand not only why they need to pass the reins of leadership onto the next generation, but, more importantly, are confident that our community’s young leaders are prepared to serve.

Program graduates currently serve on 45 boards in our area, and several have been selected to chair the board. Impressively, 70% of participants continue to make financial contributions to nonprofit organizations three years after completing their training, and 81% continue to serve on a nonprofit board during the same period.

Who holds the governance reins in your community? Paula Hickman, executive director of The Community Foundation of North Louisiana, and I will share our insights in equipping a new generation of leaders for the future of nonprofit board service at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum.  We hope to see you there.

Equip Your New Nonprofit Board Members to Be Effective on Day One

sept-blog2By Cyrus N. (Russ) White, principal, The South Cabin Group LLC; board member, Grand Rapids (MN) Area Community Foundation

This post is one in a series written by individuals who are presenting at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum, taking place on November 9 & 10, in New Orleans. We invite you to join us.

According to Leading with Intent: A National Index of Nonprofit Board Practices (BoardSource, 2015), average board size has dropped by more than 20 percent — from 19 directors to 15 — since 1994. As nonprofit boards become smaller, the impact of each board member grows. It’s not always easy to find new members, and it takes time and money to onboard new people. This makes it crucial to get new members up to speed as quickly as possible.

Here are resources every new board member should have by the first day:

Governance Documents

These are most commonly compiled into “the board book.” Loose-leaf notebooks are okay, but PDFs are better. Post everything online using a secure portal on your organization’s website, a commercial service like BoardMax, BoardEffect, or BoardDocs.com or simple file-sharing applications like Google Drive, Dropbox, or Evernote.

A Peer Mentor

Have the board chair or governance committee assign each new board member a peer mentor. The best mentors are current board members who have been on the board long enough to know how it operates, but haven’t forgotten what it is to be new.

“Peer mentors have been helpful when we got the pairings right. Those folks who have a mentor who checks in with them, especially during the first six months, helps them get ready for their first board meeting, and sits next to them at board meetings usually get better integrated. Those sound like no-brainers, but you would be amazed at the difference it makes in getting a new member functioning.” — Terry Stone, executive director at CenterLink

Meeting Schedules

Make it easy for new board members to calendar board meetings. Using Google Calendar, Outlook, or Doodle can make it easier on everyone to set meetings and make changes.

Communication Plan

What is the emergency response plan? Who needs to know when the new board member meets someone who shows interest in what the organization is trying to do? Should the board pass volunteer prospects directly to staff or through the CEO? How does a board member send notice that she cannot attend a meeting?

Introduction to the CEO

Every new board member should have an introductory conversation with the CEO prior to joining the board. This can be done individually or as a group of new board members, with the mentor(s) present. The content of the conversation is not as important as the time for new members and the CEO to become more familiar with each other before tending to board business.

Clear Connection to the Nonprofit’s Intended Results

Every new board member should know how he contributes to what the organization intends to accomplish. At the least, this requires the new member to know what the intended results are, and to have a board member job description that describes the responsibilities of each member. Have the mentor and the board chair take time to talk with new members about how their service on the board advances the organization’s intended outcomes.

A final word – easy. Make it easy for your board and leadership staff to update information the board needs. Make it easy for new board members to access the information and put it to use. Make it easy for people to talk with each other and to ask questions. Make it easy for your people to provide exceptional service to the board, to the organization, and to the wider community.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”



How Nonprofit Boards Achieve Transformational Change

sept-blogBy Katha Kissman, BoardSource senior governance consultant

This post is one in a series written by board leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2015 BoardSource Leadership Forum. We invite you to join us for this event.

When my colleague, Beth Gazley (Indiana University-Bloomington) asked me to co-author a new study and book for the ASAE Foundation that would focus on the journey to good governance, I was intrigued. As a nonprofit practitioner for more than 30 years with a chunk of time as an interim leader, organizational development consultant, and senior governance consultant with BoardSource, I had first-hand experience leading or effecting change as a practitioner. But this would be my first opportunity to marry my practitioner knowledge with evidence-based research in partnership with an academic who specialized in the nonprofit sector.

The result, a book titled Transformational Governance: How Boards Achieve Extraordinary Change, aspired to fill a gap in the current literature on nonprofit governance by combining three elements missing from earlier publications. First, it would focus less on the qualities of high-performing boards and more on the processes that ordinary boards used to reach higher performance. Second, it would emphasize both case studies and the applied tools and activities that are used to achieve higher performance. And third, and most importantly, it would focus on the work of professional and trade associations rather than nonprofits in general. In other words, this book was intended to offer guidance on the activities, tools, and decisions associations use to achieve higher performance — helping associations in particular, but other nonprofits as well, understand how to restructure themselves to perform better.

What was most surprising to me as Beth and I worked on the project was how my training in an entirely different area of my life — that of a clinical hypnotherapist — provided a lens to what were hearing from the more than 100 association leaders we conversed with via one-on-one interviews and emails. And that was all about the energy, fortitude, and commitment it took to understand and then to manage the human dynamic involved with the organizational team (board and staff) to achieve transformational governance change.

In “Getting to Good Governance,” an article that appeared in the July-August 2015 issues of Associations Now, Beth and I wrote: “Change engenders passion and emotion. Disagreements or conflicts may erupt. Paying attention to these dynamics and actively honoring the human element requires commitment, compromise, and work. This takes active management. Recognizing that a board is a team is a first step. These often relative strangers, who come from different backgrounds and geographic locations and who have varied personalities, come together possibly only four to six times a year. Adapting to complex group dynamics while serving the mission, dealing with operational goals, and making important decisions in a limited amount of time requires strong leadership, focus, and heartfelt work on the part of every person involved. Board members who make a commitment at the outset to understand relationships, trust fellow members, and accept a common purpose will find that banked social capital pays off later if and when the board has to change the status quo.”

The research data, the knowledge and resources, the quotes, and the case studies included in Transformational Governance: How Boards Achieve Extraordinary Change provide key insights to those board members who know (or even think) change is needed. My presentation at BLF will hopefully give you the courage to take the first step toward that needed change.

Transformational Governance: How Boards Achieve Extraordinary Change is available through the BoardSource bookstore.


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